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Sierra Leone’s ‘peace diamond’ dividend slow in coming

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They were promised a “peace diamond” dividend in the Sierra Leone village of Koryardu after the stone they handed over for auction fetched $6.5 million (5.7 million euros) a year ago.

But they are still waiting to see the benefits.

“Absolutely nothing happened,” said Pastor Emmanuel Momoh, who manages the team of diggers that found the 709-carat diamond in March 2017, in eastern Kono province.

The idea of handing the diamond over to the government to sell was that it would generate money to be ploughed back into developing the local community.

But at the village school, Peter Baimoi, who helps teach its about 190 pupils, said there was no sign of the promised government funding.

With no qualified teachers in the village, parents rely on their children being taught by some of the better-educated local people who can read and write, like Bamoi who finished high school.

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They do it voluntarily, the pastor said.

The government had promised that 15 percent of the total sale price — nearly one million dollars — would go into a fund for Koryardu to develop water, electricity, health and education.

A year on, Koryardu still has no electricity and no clinic — and the nearest state school is in Koidu, about 14 kilometres (nine miles) away.

The hamlet lies 10 kilometres from the main highway — and the road into the village is still impassable for six months of the year, during the rainy season.

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– ‘Blood’ and ‘peace’ diamonds –

Sierra Leone, like some other African countries, is struggling to overcome the legacy of so-called “blood diamonds”, sold by warlords to finance conflicts. The west African country suffered a devastating civil war between 1991 and 2002.

The international community set up the Kimberley certification system in 2003 to eliminate the problem, regulating the sale and export of diamonds.

Experts said Koryardu’s diamond was the largest found in Sierra Leone in almost half a century.

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Momoh entrusted it to the administration of the country’s then president, Ernest Bai Koroma, who dubbed it the “peace diamond”.

The auction was originally scheduled to be held at the Central Bank in Freetown, but as the government thought the best offer made there — more than $7 million — was not high enough, they took the sale abroad.

The subsequent auction in New York netted $6.5 million.

– The legal option –

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Under the sale agreement, 60 percent of the proceeds went straight to the government, out of which the village was to get its share, and 40 percent to Momoh, he said.

After sharing his proceeds with the five miners who found the stone, the village chief and the land owner, as well as donating 30 percent to charity and helping villagers, Momoh had about $1 million net, he added.

Declaring the find to the government was the only legal option. The only other alternative would have been to sell to smugglers on the black market.

Momoh also wanted the community to benefit from the proceeds.

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But there is still no sign of the money promised to the village.

People need to see tangible benefits, said Victor Topoi, a teacher from Kono province, “not only on paper or in the news, but physically on the ground”.

– ‘Maintain trust’ –

The Koroma administration did sign a million-dollar contract with a Chinese company to build a new school and a clinic in the village.

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But that deal was frozen when the new president, Julius Maada Bio, took office in April.

Ibrahim Satti Kamara, spokesman for the National Minerals Agency, said there had been some design issues that had now been sorted out.

Work on the project should begin before the end of the year, he told AFP.

“The good news is that the money is still available and ready to use for that project,” he said.

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The authorities understand the community’s frustration, he added.

“We expect that by the time we continue with the work, that will change.

“We are aware of the responsibility to maintain that trust, that’s why we’ve been very careful on how the money is spent on the project,” he added.

In the meantime, the Rapaport Group, the auction house that handled the New York sale, has stepped in to help, installing 50 solar panels in the village in November.

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It also has plans to bring in water filtration systems.

“We want to make sure that (the villagers) see something tangible as the government gets its act together,” the group’s owner Martin Rapaport told AFP during a visit to Koryardu.

But the money from the diamond sale also needs to materialise, said Momoh.

“If the government doesn’t fulfill its promises, I think that it will break the trust and people will not take their diamonds to the government any longer,” he said.

“Not only the people in Koryardu, but all over Kono.”

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Sailing among the stars: Here’s how photons could revolutionize space flight

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A few days from now, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will lift off from Florida, carrying a satellite the size of a loaf of bread with nothing to power it but a huge polyester "solar sail."

It's been the stuff of scientists' dreams for decades but has only very recently become a reality.

The idea might sounds crazy: propelling a craft through the vacuum of space with no engine, no fuel, and no solar panels, but instead harnessing the momentum of packets of light energy known as photons -- in this case from our Sun.

The spacecraft to be launched on Monday, called LightSail 2, was developed by the Planetary Society, a US organization that promotes space exploration which was co-founded by the legendary astronomer Carl Sagan in 1980.

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Russians to prod Putin on poverty and his personal life as his ratings tank

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Russians are set to ask President Vladimir Putin about growing poverty at home and tensions abroad during an annual televised phone-in Thursday, which comes following a fall in his approval ratings.

The leader is also likely to face a degree of grilling on his personal life, according to questions submitted by the public online ahead of the live show.

Set to be held for the 17th time since Putin came to power in 1999, the show starts at 0900 GMT and usually lasts several hours.

Ahead of the carefully choreographed show, more than one million questions had been submitted, organisers told Russian news agencies.

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Trump could turn on Hope Hicks just like Michael Cohen: Trump family biographer warns

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Trump family biographer Emily Jane Fox explained that she didn't think that the president would turn on long-time aide Hope Hicks, but then again, it was the same thought about Michael Cohen as well.

In a panel discussion about Hicks' testimony during MSNBC's Brian Williams' Wednesday show, Fox recalled that Micahel Cohen once said that he would take a bullet for the president. Once it appeared that Trump would throw him under the bus, Cohen began looking for a way out.

The same scenario seems to be happening with Hicks now.

"She works at new Fox, which is a company run by a Murdoch son," Fox said. "It's a company that's brand new. She's the head of communications there. And there are shareholders who would take issue with the fact that a senior member of this company is being put in this situation and being thrust on the world stage."

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